Published January 3, 2024
I first experienced Rome in 1971 on our honeymoon, visiting my wife’s uncle, a priest who served for a decade in the Congregation (now the Dicastery) for the Doctrine of the Faith. What I remember most vividly about those few days is a Fellini-esque evening performance of Aida with elephants in the Baths of Caracalla, followed by a hair-raising drive home through Roman traffic. The city then was an electric blend of the sacred and profane: a cocktail of religious piety, garish energy, and opiate nostalgia; strange and addictive at the same time. I loved it.
I returned to Rome for Church-related work in 1985, ‘87, ‘89, ‘97, ‘99, 2001, ‘14, and ’15, always with roughly the same mix of feelings. In all those visits, the living Catholic soul of the city – if you cared to look for it – redeemed the vulgarity and offered some clean, fresh oxygen to inhale along with the narcotic scent of memory and ruins. Throughout the papal tenures of Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger, serious pastoral concerns, evangelical zeal, and exceptional intellect coincided and reinforced each other. Exacting Catholic thought mattered. It was the fertile soil for Christian action. This seemed to continue, or at least not to be stymied, in the first two or three years of the Bergoglio pontificate.
I visited Rome twice in 2018, again for Church-related work. The spirit of the place by then was entirely different. And so it remains. Some of my disenchantment today doubtless comes from my age, not the city’s; skepticism tends to grow along with one’s years. But there are days now when (Catholic) Rome really does feel like Constantinople in the last years of the Palaiologoi emperors: a museum in the midst of the hostile and indifferent, curated by the mediocre. For the believer who looks too closely and reflects too long, Rome can be as much a wound as a source of refreshment. This isn’t new of course; quite the opposite. Martin Luther had the same reaction. That didn’t end well.
It is new, though, for the age cohort of men and women (i.e., mine) entering their teens as Vatican II opened, and blessed by a string of intellectually gifted popes. The current pontificate has important strengths, but not in the same category. Pope Francis’s distaste for the United States is tiresome, given the loyalty and generosity of American Catholics. But it’s understandable from a Latin American perspective. His opening to China may prove to be a bitter mistake. Still, the Vatican has centuries of experience at playing the long game. It’s possible that time could prove such policies fruitful. U.S. dominance will pass just as every other empire’s power has passed. Thus, some of the criticism directed at Francis is simply excessive.
Unfortunately, what this pontificate – including its advisers and boosters – will be held accountable for is its carelessness with canon law; its impatience with even faithful questioning of its actions; and its record of creating ambiguity and confusion. Whether these behaviors are conscious and intentional or not is irrelevant. The consequences are damaging. The widespread and very public resistance to Fiducia supplicans, the recent Vatican text on the nature of blessings and their application (especially to persons in “irregular” sexual unions), has no precedent in the last half-century. It’s an imprudent, flawed document. The negative reaction to it, from individual bishops and entire bishops’ conferences, is warranted.
A priest friend with Vatican experience recently suggested, in private conversation, that there are actually three defining personae to Jorge Bergoglio, all equally true: the edifying Jesuit; the 1960s Latin American priest shaped by a culture of poverty, suffering, and political turbulence; and the Argentine dictator. If so, it explains a lot about the last decade.
Knowing that, however, doesn’t achieve much. We always have the duty to speak the truth with love – especially in the Church, and even when it’s unwelcome. The point is: What do we do with facts we can’t change?
As we start a new year and enter the Church season of “ordinary time,” how can we manage the frustrations that naturally come with Church conflict? Worries and resentments can be unjust to others, and they can strip our hearts of joy like a plague of locusts at harvest. So I go back, again and again, to three things.
First, we need to pray for Pope Francis and also for our own conversion. And we need to do it sincerely, and with goodwill. That can be harder than it sounds; it often is for me. Worse, it can seem saccharine and unproductive because American culture is so heavily biased toward action. We’re an impatient people, and there’s no algorithm to prayer that gets predictable results on a predictable schedule. Prayer invariably “works,” but not in the way we may want, or the timeframe we find convenient.
Second, we need to remember our own history because it’s a lesson in hope. Reading Carlos Eire’s Reformations, or Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, or Hubert Jedin’s great History of the Council of Trent, or any similar record of the medieval or ancient Christian Church is both sobering and encouraging. There’s never really been a golden age of tranquility in Christian life because human nature doesn’t allow it. We’re flawed creatures. We – and “we” means all of us, from popes to plumbers – do bad things that have big consequences. But we’re also capable of virtue, self-sacrifice, and nobility, and God never abandons us, which is why we’re still here.
Finally, every January I try to reread Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Peter Jackson’s films of the story are good, but the books are better. And the lesson of all their hundreds of pages is this: We need to do the best we can with the time given us. None of us can see the whole picture of the world around us. But God does. And we can trust Him.
Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.